Badiou and Cinema
Edinburgh University Press, 2011
ISBN: 9 780 7486411 30
(Review copy supplied by Edinburgh University Press)
Modern philosophy has experienced two major changes with regards to the arts. Firstly, in 1781 Kant published the monumental Critique of Pure Judgement, which revitalized the category of aesthetics from the Greeks and annexed it permanently to the gaze of just about every continental philosopher to follow. Secondly, and seemingly out of no where, French post-structuralist Gilles Deleuze published two totalizing philosophical treatises on cinema, which not only surprisingly showed Deleuze himself to be an avid cinephile, but also had much the same run away effect as Kant’s aforementioned critique. Influential post-Deleuzian philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek, Paul Virilio and Jacques Rancière have not only all published widely on cinema, but have also shown themselves to be just as passionate about cinema as Deleuze himself. However, perhaps the most important figure in this new generation of post-Deleuzian philosophers, Alain Badiou has written very little by way of cinema, and only last year managed to dedicate his first full book length treatment to film, which is yet to be translated into English. Until then, we have Alex Ling’s excellent Badiou and Cinema, which is both an exposition of the several small essays Badiou has published on cinema, and the overall application of Badiou’s philosophy to this specific medium of artistic production.
Ling begins his investigation by firstly introducing the often-misunderstood dictum that guides Badiou’s work, namely his ‘return to Plato’, and by lamenting the contemporary malaise of the current state of cinema studies. Within the former, Ling states that a return to Plato is not “nostalgic” (2) in nature, as if Badiou’s project would be nothing more than a repetition of what is already in the texts of Plato. Instead, calling for this return simply “marks a rupture with all those ideologies of finitude, in the form of a definitive beginning, a (re)commencement of philosophy proper” (2), which in the words of Badiou himself, rebels against the “great fallacious construction of modernity and postmodernity alike” (2). On the other hand, the latter concern of the introduction identifies “the two dominant approaches to thinking cinema” (4): Film Theory and post-Theory. Film Theory, for Ling, is an approach to “cinema as an apparatus whose function is almost exclusively ideological, and, by extension, truthless” (4-5), whereas post-Theory is a “hopelessly relative” activity which “sets itself apart from Film Theory in its encompassing all those ‘middle-range’ – and, for the most part, cognitivitst – inquires which, given their primarily empirical and formal concerns… make no pretence towards offering any totalising structure” (5). As you might have already guessed, the homogeny of these two approaches arises only through their mutual rejection of the category of truth per se, resulting in “the overarching concern of Badiou and Cinema”, being the “properly Platonic need to reconfigure the place of truth in cinema” (3). Moreover, this “means that our ‘return to Plato’ is foremost a return to the point at which cinema finds its allegorisation in the cave (Plato’s cave), that is, to the famous question generally indexed to Andre Bazin, of what cinema really is” (8)1. The outline Ling gives of the contemporary juncture leaves his guiding question of ‘what cinema really is’ split into three. The questions that guide his argument are therefore, “what is cinema? (the ontological question); what does cinema think? (the artistic question); and how is cinema to be rethought? (the philosophical question)” (8).
One of the strengths of Badiou and Cinema is that, while it is perfectly in tune with many of the repeated tropes of philosophical jargon and therefore requires some prior engagement with philosophical texts, it helpfully introduces the work of Alain Badiou in a concise and engaging manner. The chapter ‘Presenting Alain Badiou’ deals with the question of what philosophy – or, philosophical activity – is for Badiou, as well as outlining his own doctrine of (in)aesthetics. To understand precisely what Ling argues Badiou brings to cinema it then might be worth briefly considering what philosophy and (in)aesthetics are for Badiou.
Ling writes that Badiou’s own “unique philosophical question is the following: can we think that there is something new in the situation?” (17)2. This question has a two-fold significance. On the one hand, it is an attempt to think how something new, and more importantly, universal can enter into the world and, on the other hand, how ‘global change’ can emerge. Interestingly, Badiou also notes that philosophy itself is organically truthless; its job is to not only rethink already existing mediums that contain thought, but also, more generally, to discusses the possibility for thought. With this task at hand, Badiou sees four and only four ‘conditions’ that call to be rethought: art, science, love and politics. Therefore what is unique to philosophy is the importance of the “thinking of thought”3. As cinema pertains to art it is not surprising that this specific artistic medium has the ability to produce truth. Moreover – although philosophy needs art while art does not necessarily need philosophy – because of Jacques Rancière’s declaration that “film is now… in a certain way the paradigm of art”, (107) philosophy has now been charged with the challenge of (re)thinking cinema.
About the term inaesthetics Ling quotes Badiou as saying the following:
By ‘inaesthetics’ I understand a relation of philosophy to art that, maintaining that art is itself a producer of truths, makes no claim to turn art into an object for philosophy. Against aesthetic speculation, inaesthetics describes the strictly intraphilosophical effects produced by the independent existence of some works of art. (20)
From this definition, Ling gathers the following: art is a fundamental producer of truth, or, “art is its own master”, and because of the “limitation of inaesthetics to only ‘some works of art’”, real art (or art worthy of the name) is “fundamentally rare” (21). With this basic definition in place let us turn to what, in Ling’s eyes, cinema is for Badiou.
At first glance it seems that Badiou’s views on cinema have evolved from dismissive – but not derogatory – to accepting. Badiou himself once described cinema as “Saturday night art”. However, in Logics of Worlds he stated that, “in publishing the final synthesis of my philosophy… I will try to turn philosophy towards filmic expression” (32-33). The three essays Ling concentrates on are ‘The False Movements of Cinema’ in Handbook of Inaesthetics, ‘Philosophy and Cinema’ in Infinite Thought, and ‘Cinema as a Democratic Emblem’. By examining these essays, Ling sees Badiou as saying that “cinema is, at base, a subtractive art” (34). This is to say that the “initial cinematic act… is that of cutting or subtracting the image from the visible” (34) and that “cinema’s basic operations are subtractive in nature (the image is first subtracted from the visible, the local movement subtracts the image from itself, the impure movement subtracts the arts from their proper position)” (162). This in turn leads us to ask the question of what cinema is able to subtract from the real world? This thesis allows Badiou, in a good way, to call cinema a “bastard art” (32) because it is able to take liberally from any other art form ad infinitum.
However, the notion of subtraction can be furthered simply because “cinema is an art of appearances” (55), or “at base a multiple of multiples” (69). It is Badiou’s belief that cinema is in fact not an ontological art; instead, he sees it as being onto-logical. For Badiou, logic and appearance are one and the same. Ling writes, “What appears is nothing other than a logical determination of what is. Meaning what is peculiar to cinema is its ability to stage the complex interplay between being and being-there… between what is and what appears”. (55-56). Because it is an art that functions on the level of appearance means that cinema is more than ontological. However, because this appearance works with the logics of being, cinema also contains an element of classical ontological thinking resulting in it being onto-logical, making it the best art to “dramatise the relations between being and appearing” (56). Therefore the potential for truth in cinematic art arises not from what is hidden within the work, or even from some totalizing exhaustive reading. On the contrary, the capacity for truth in cinema arises from its creative potential; it is truth that comes into being from a truly artistic cinema.
Recall that for Badiou philosophy must also think global change, making its aim inherently political4. Cinema, like philosophy, is a democratic activity, meaning that it is an address given to everybody (and because of Badiou’s Platonic framework, it should be aimed specifically at corrupting the youth), making it a ‘mass art’ as well as a ‘bastard art’. However, for a truly thoughtful cinema, its goals and, more precisely, its destinations must never be democratic in nature; it has the ability to speak “to (generic) humanity in a way that no other art is capable of doing” (190). The problematic paradox Ling sees at the heart of truly revolutionary cinema (he cites the work of Udi Aloni and Abbas Kiarostami as being prime examples) is that it doesn’t have the “mass appeal that less immediately political films do”. Thus Ling ends his discussion on the following polemical note:
cinema must truly become, not only in address but also in form, a mass art, an art of and for the masses. For, politically (as much as artistically) speaking, it is only in really embracing its democratic nature that cinema might live up to its true potential. (184)
Although this short review is not able to explain the entirety of this fascinating and intriguing book, for which a chapter-by-chapter study would be both welcome and necessary, I would end by saying that while it may be true, as Tony McKibbin’s review of this book elsewhere points out, that Badiou may not light the same theoretical fire in cinema studies as Deleuze did, it is at least comforting to know, in the spirit of the philosopher in question (and of Jacques Derrida, the sophist), that thought still has a future, and moreover, the best is both here with us and yet to come.
1 One of the problems Ling shows each Film Theory and Post-Theory to have is that they both see a ‘true’ reading of a film to be totally exhaustive. However, as Badiou tell us, any Truth proper is totally and radically ‘inexhaustive’. A point in which, if one wanted to explore further, any number of Badiou’s major philosophical works would suffice (e.g Being and Event, Manifesto for Philosophy (which serves as a decent and somewhat simple introduction to the general thesis that guides Badiou’s philosophy), Logics of Worlds, etc)
2 The ‘situation’ is a term worth musing upon as it is, to my mind, Badiou’s most interesting and vexing ontological and meta-ontological concept. A situation is the operation in which we are able to count something as one (counting-as-one). This is to say that if something is to exist as one (a life, a philosophy, a film), an operation must occur whereby something transforms from being consistent multiplicities to a coherent whole.
3 Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota, 2000) 20,1.
4 Politics is what Badiou sees as allowing philosophy not to toil into aristocratic self-reference. As a one-time Maoist, Badiou has written many interesting books on politics that range from technical to out-right polemical.